As Metro congestion grows, so does anger at 'seat hogs'

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010; A01

Brooke Timmons grasped a bar in the middle of a crowded Red Line rail car and held on, looking exasperated as she tried to keep her balance while the train jerked and accelerated down the track.

On both sides of Timmons sat riders referred to on commuter Web sites as "seat hogs." A man and woman occupied aisle seats with empty spots beside them but made no move to slide over and offer Timmons a seat.

"There is a self-centeredness about it. 'My space is more important than you,' " said Timmons, 37, a lawyer from the District. "It's epidemic" and reflects a lack of etiquette in Washington, said Timmons, who grew up in Vinita, Okla., population 6,000, where she said gentility prevailed.

As Washington's public transit network grows more congested, with Metro projecting "unmanageable" levels of saturation on its rail system by 2020, the phenomenon of people taking up more than their share of space is becoming increasingly touchy.

"It makes me mad," Soulman Bushera, 26, an IT recruiter in the District, said as he rode a packed Red Line train downtown one recent morning. "I ask them to move," he said. "You find a whole aisle of them sometimes, and the one you pick gets disgruntled."

Twitter users and commenters on transit blogs such as Unsuck DC Metro frequently sound off about people who place purses, briefcases, feet or wet umbrellas on seats next to them in jammed trains.

"This is one of my favorite kinds of Metro riders. It's bad enough that she's doing the 'sit-on-the-outside-seat-so-no-one-will-try-to-sit-next-to-me,' but she's also got her filthy foot on a seat," "Amanda" said in a blog post. "Several people were standing, including myself."

Commuter irritation over the problem is not limited to Washington. Last fall, a 33-year-old Manhattan businessman posted to Facebook a picture of a woman with her legs crossed taking up two seats on a New York subway car while scratching a lottery ticket.

"It created a lot of outrage," said the businessman, who decided to create the Web site and post photographs aimed at shaming the guilty into behaving. The Web site has attracted photos of territorially insensitive public transit riders from areas such as Toronto and Hong Kong.

"Seat hoggers and people being rude in public has kind of reached a boiling point, with the economy bad," said the businessman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect himself from harassment by people spotlighted on the blog.

"Seat hogs are so prevalent, and there is such a sense of entitlement among certain passengers," he said, calling those who sit on the aisle, blocking empty seats, particularly "passive-aggressive."

Private space

Industry experts are hard-pressed to explain the psychology of people who are greedy with space -- blocking off seats, standing in doorways or obstructing aisles.

"It puzzles me," said Norman Rhodes, senior vice president of transportation for the New York consulting firm Hatch Mott MacDonald. "I suppose people don't want to give up their private space."

"I am an Englishman, and I've become terribly brash and assertive since I moved to New York, but if you have less-assertive people, that would not work so well," he said.

In New York, subway authorities have banned selfishness with seats. A rider who occupies more than one seat, places a foot on a seat, lies on the floor or blocks movement on a train risks being cited for "disorderly conduct" and charged a $50 fine.

"The police . . . enforce it," said Deirdre Parker, spokeswoman for New York City Transit.

Metro has no such rule, preferring to rely on the civility of Washingtonians.

"I think in Washington there is a respect" among riders, said Barbara J. Richardson, Metro's chief of customer relations. When space is at a premium, "common courtesy takes over," with customers stepping in to "remind" riders who are out of line to make way, Richardson said.

Just wait 10 years . . .

Metro is researching design options for its new generation of rail cars, the 7000 series, and plans to gather rider feedback to maximize seating and comfort, said David Kubicek, head of Metro operations.

That doesn't necessarily mean relief for the Metro passengers of tomorrow. By 2020, Metro projects that the Red, Blue and Yellow lines will be "highly congested," with 100 to 120 people per car, and that the Orange Line will be "unmanageable," with more than 120 riders per car.

The transit agency would need 320 more rail cars to keep congestion manageable, but the current capital spending plan does not include funds for those, Kubicek said in a recent presentation to Metro's board of directors.

"I am concerned about there being enough seats; we need more capacity," said Chris Zimmerman, a Metro board member from Arlington County. Civility "becomes more and more critical as conditions become more and more crowded, as we fail to increase supply to meet demand."

On the fringes

Anecdotal evidence suggests that during the morning and afternoon crushes, only the most brazen will attempt to monopolize space on subway cars. Instead, seat hogs tend to inhabit the fringes of rush hour, victimizing less-assertive commuters, Metro riders say.

"It bothers me," said one Blue Line rider, a few steps from a man who had taken over two seats on a packed Blue Line train at rush hour. Seat hogs "are expecting a level of confrontation from anyone who will have them move over. Most people won't achieve that level of territoriality," said the rider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said his wife has a sensitive government job.

The offender, a midshipman from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, was sheepish. "I do actually feel sort of bad," said the 18-year-old, who had sat in a seat and placed his bag beside him. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, lest his commander scold him. "I would normally give up my seat."

Across town on a Red Line train, Hannah Platt, a junior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, flopped down with her bag and put her feet up, taking up the two-person seat. As the train filled with evening commuters, Allison Sarraciino stood near Platt but did not say anything.

"I was giving her a chance to move," said Sarraciino, of Albuquerque.

Eventually, Platt took the cue.

"When I saw people standing up, I decided to move it," she said.

Before they knew it, Sarraciino, an intern at the Agriculture Department, and Platt, who works at the Alliance for Green Heat, began exchanging notes about their jobs.

Civility 1, Seat Hogs 0.

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